Please welcome guest author Jim Rada. Rada is an award-winning writer best known for his history and historical books. He lives in Gettysburg, PA, where he works as a freelance writer. Rada has received numerous awards from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, Associated Press, Maryland State Teachers Association and Community Newspapers Holdings, Inc. for his newspaper writing. We’re pleased to offer an excerpt from his newly published Lock Ready, the 3rd book in his historical novel series Canawlers, about the lives of those who worked and lived on the C&O Canal. Rada will be signing books at Cumberland, MD’s Book Center from 11-1 on May 31, and will also be at Main Street Books in Frostburg, MD from 2-4 on that same day.
STARTING ANEW, DECEMBER 1863
David stepped into the large warehouse at the southern end of the canal basin in Cumberland. The bay doors had been swung open to allow sunlight to shine on the work going on inside. However, it also meant that the warehouse stayed cold inside. It was nothing more than a very long barn. The difference was that this barn housed canal boats not livestock. The Lewis Boatworks was one of a handful of boat yards in Cumberland that built and repaired canal boats for canallers.
During the summer, some work could be done outdoors if the warehouse had a large enough yard, but there was a greater risk of sabotage from Confederate sympathizers, railroaders or simply hooligans against the exposed canal boats. Confederate raiders or sympathizers had burned the bridge from Cumberland to Ridgeley, West Virginia, and torn up the B&O Railroad track outside of Cumberland early in the war. Because of that, Amos Lewis preferred to construct his boats indoors and them roll them on logs out the warehouse doors that opened onto the Cumberland Basin.
David saw three men hammering boards that would become the roof of the family cabin onto the cabin frame. The boats on the C&O Canal were all roughly the same shape and length in order to fit into the seventy-four lift locks along the canal. The boats were each ninety-two feet long. Most were made of Georgia pine, though new boats being built were understandably made of trees harvested in the north. The largest area on a canal boat was the cargo holds, which made up about eighty percent of the space on a boat. The remaining space was taken up by three cabins; a family cabin and a mule shed sat on opposite ends of the canal boat, and a hay house was located in the middle of the boat.
David could smell creosote and wood and hear men talking and laughing as they worked on the canal boat. He had once been surprised that Cumberland, which was a city in the mountains, had a reputation for shipbuilding, but after working on the canal, he knew it was deserved. From here, the canal boats could be ordered by individual captains or the Consolidated Coal Company and launched at the canal basin to be filled with coal.
Cumberland was an important shipbuilding city because the C&O Canal was the lifeline for getting coal from the mountains of Western Maryland to Washington City. Access to coal was one of the reasons that the first destination for both the C&O Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had been to reach Cumberland.
The C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad both began construction on July 4, 1828; the canal from Washington and the railroad from Baltimore. In the following years, the canal was delayed by an extended legal battle at Point of Rocks, fighting for the right of way and by Mother Nature near Paw Paw, Virginia, to dig the Paw Paw Tunnel. By the time the canal reached Cumberland in 1850, the railroad had already been there and operating for eight years.
The need for coal had allowed both businesses to survive and grow. It was particularly important now because portions of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad kept changing hands between the Confederacy and the Union. Part of the railroad’s right-of-way ran through West Virginia, which still had strong Southern sympathies despite the fact the Unionists had gathered enough support to break West Virginia off from Virginia to form a new Union state. The C&O Canal had proven to be fairly reliable in getting much-needed coal to the capital city, despite the Confederacy’s efforts to stop boating on the canal.
The Western Maryland coal mines produced bituminous coal. It was a soft coal that was of lower quality than the coal mined in the Pennsylvania coal mines to the north. However, bituminous coal was more affordable, especially since the cost of Pennsylvania anthracite coal was climbing due to war pricing. Western Maryland’s coal was high-quality bituminous, which made it nearly as good as the coal coming from the Pennsylvania mines.
David smelled the odor of smoke from Amos Lewis’s cigar before he saw the man. Amos had thinning, blond hair that he had to frequently brush out of his eyes. He kept his hair combed back to try and keep from looking bald. His wide shoulders and large frame could hold a lot of weight without looking fat, but he still appeared very heavy.
“David!” Amos called out as he blew out a huge ring of smoke.
David turned from watching the construction of the canal boat. He saw Amos coming at him with his arms outstretched.
“I can guess why you’re here,” Amos said with a smile.
David had worked for Amos last winter while the canal was drained. He had come to truly like the man. He considered him a friend.
“Can you use me?” David asked.
Amos raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to run off to go canalling in a couple months just when I get used to having you around?”
David shook his head. “No, I quit the Freeman. I’m looking for year-round work now.”
Amos stared at David for a moment. “You quit?” David nodded. “And just walked away from Mrs. Fitzgerald? I didn’t think that you were an idiot, David.” Amos snorted and shook his head.
“You said it yourself, Amos. She’s a missus,” David said.
Amos put a hand on David’s shoulder. “Just because she’s a missus doesn’t mean that she’s not looking for a different mister. She wouldn’t be the first wife looking to stay warm in the winter with her husband away.”
David stiffened. This was the reason that he had left the Fitzgeralds. “Amos, I like you, but…”
Amos pressed down on David’s shoulder. “Calm down. I’m not saying Mrs. Fitzgerald is that type of woman. She’s not from all that I know about her, but she is a widow. There’s a difference. She could be Mrs. Windover.”
David shook his head. That dream had gone. “No. That’s not how things are between us. She’ll always be no more than Mrs. Fitzgerald.”
Amos frowned and said, “And General Lee is sitting in my office in a drunken stupor.”
Amos feigned innocence. “Oh, I thought we’d moved on to telling tales.”
“What are you talking about?” David asked. “Maybe you’re the one in a drunken stupor.”
Amos shook his head. “Not me. I never touch the stuff.”
“Uh huh,” David said skeptically.
“But just because you or I say something doesn’t make it fact.”
“I’m not lying to you.”
Amos chewed on the end of the cigar for a moment and then said, “That’s what you say. Maybe you even believe it.”
David gave his head a slight shake. “So can you use someone to help around here who’s familiar with your operation?” David asked to change the subject.
Amos nodded. “The books need work. When people fall behind in their payments, things go crazy in the books, too. And a lot of people have been falling behind.”
“Do you have to ask? First, our own government confiscated our boats to sink them or use them for bridges so troops can cross the James River. Then the Johnny Rebs take after the boats and burn them or blow up one of the aqueducts so the canal drains. It can be hard to make a living as a canaller right now. War is not good for business.”
David shifted uncomfortably under Amos’s stare. Two years ago, David had been one of those Johnny Rebs. He wasn’t about to tell Amos that, though. If word got out that he had been a Confederate soldier, they’d run him out of town or worse. Cumberland was an occupied town with probably nearly as many soldiers as citizens. They protected the railroad and the canal. The city also had a lot of temporary hospitals for the soldiers who had been loaded onto trains near a battle site and brought to Cumberland to be treated.
“So do you want me to look at the books now?” David asked.
Amos shook his head. “No. Why don’t you supervise these boys? I’ll get a space cleared for you and gather up the books and receipts that you’ll need.” Amos shook David’s hand and clapped him on the shoulder. “Glad to have you back, David.”